MSNBC public editor: Phil Donahue and the art of remembering

The last time an American president banged the drum to start a war in the Middle East, Phil Donahue got fired from MSNBC. 

Iraq is yesterday’s nemesis; today Iran has taken its place. It might seem like ancient history, but in fact we’re in a new chapter of the same mess that began many decades ago. If the responsibility of journalism is to record events—and to interpret them in the light of established facts—the job is impossible without cultivating a long and accurate memory, as a look back at Donahue demonstrates.

In February 2003—a matter of days before the start of the war in Iraq—MSNBC axed Donahue’s primetime show, citing poor ratings. (Though it lagged behind its competitors on other networks, Donahue was then MSNBC’s highest-rated show.) 

It had been only eighteen months since 9/11, and so Donahue’s vocal opposition to the war was often cited in media reports as the real reason for his firing. Evidence emerged to support this contention. An internal memo leaked to allyourscreens.com’s Rick Ellis expressed fears of MSNBC becoming “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag.”

In the months after 9/11, NBC chief executive Bob Wright had “pointedly” told MSNBC news chief Neal Shapiro to challenge Fox from the right: “We have to be more conservative than they are.” Soon, “swirling graphics of the American flag” appeared on MSNBC alongside a new tagline, “America’s NewsChannel,” as Gabriel Sherman revealed years later in New York magazine.

“I was naive,” Donahue said when reached by phone recently. “I honestly thought I might survive because I was different. Nobody was knocking Don Rumsfeld except me, at the time.” MSNBC was then owned by General Electric, a huge defense contractor, and he suspects this was not an unrelated factor.

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The war began on March 20, 2003, and eleven days later Keith Olbermann took over Donahue’s former slot on MSNBC with a new show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, which would run for eight years.

 The decision to hire Olbermann kind of flies in the face of the notion that politics alone was responsible for Donahue’s ouster; Olbermann was no kind of conservative. He had famously quit his first MSNBC show in 1998 because the network’s obsession with the Monica Lewinsky scandal was causing him to have “dry heaves in the bathroom.” Even so, his return began with at least a superficial attempt at evenhandedness.

News is the news. We will not be screwing around with it.… As times improve and the war ends we will begin to introduce more and more elements familiar to my style,” he silkily informed the Washington Post.

But the war didn’t end, and Olbermann would come to oppose it quite as ferociously (and far less politely) than Donahue had; the success of Countdown would in time push MSNBC decidedly to the left. The intricate clockwork of business, politics, and public opinion clicked and turned and whirred, and turned again.

Until Olbermann’s legendarily difficult, mercurial personality finally caught up with him, that is, and he was dismissed from the network in 2011.

I asked Donahue to comment on our current political and media moment. 

“It’s just very difficult for mainstream media to think of anything but—” He paused.

“Obedience?” I suggested. 

“Yeah, but that’s what’s so insidious, they don’t call it that. If you criticize America, then you don’t respect the troops, you’re not patriotic, you don’t respect the hard sacrifices of [journalists] who are trying—

“And this is what upsets me. [So many in the press] are doing a hell of a job, and don’t realize how much they’ve surrendered to the word of the White House.” He mentioned CNN’s Arwa Damon, who’s “got bullets flyin’ all around her. I think about her parents, watching.… There’s a lot of valor left. We haven’t totally lost our soul, here. But in Washington, there’s an unbecoming self-indulgence, and a lot of fluttering around the White House mecca; ‘this is the seat of great power.’ And it’s not easy to go the other way.

“I think that the Washington press corps should get out of town sometimes, find out what’s going on across the nation,” he said. “Trump! Who are those people, holding up their cameras to photograph him? With—with his tie, that looks like a kitchen tablecloth?—applauding himself—big suit coat. It’s Trump-Trump-Trump all day long, and nobody’s really exploring, How did this happen? ” 

I might have been tempted to dismiss this as a defense of Red State Diner Journalism until I saw the Donahue episode featuring anti-war protesters Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins alongside Dan Flynn, author of Why the Left Hates America. The intensely personal way Donahue drew the two sides of the argument together onstage was nothing like the familiar Trump-safari newspaper accounts; the difference lay in his lack of detachment, the intimate approach of a humanely inclusive talk show host, rather than a professionally dispassionate reporter. By the time Hugh Downs weighed in near the end of the show, a full context was in place. “If we had a justifiable war, Americans would be behind it. The reason for dissent is that there’s severe doubt as to whether the proof is at hand.” 

Donahue told me, “I think one of the reasons for [Trump’s] success at the polls is the separation of elite media, elite politics, people in Congress, from the guy whose [employer] is about to leave the country. Whose kids are smoking opioids, who can’t pay the college tuition. There’s a lot of broken dreams and broken hearts in this country. And I don’t think the mainstream media—the greatest media, with all the freedom to talk about all this—I don’t think we’re hearing about it!”

“Well… when you tried to say so yourself, you basically got fired,” I said.

“That’s right, I did,” he said, gently.

“And now George W. Bush is getting rehabilitated into this, like, kindly painter of dogs?”

“He really is.”

This poverty of institutional memory and journalistic accountability helps to explain why, nearly twenty years later, I have to remind you that the current administration, like every administration since 2003, is still lying about its misadventures in the Middle East—the zero-evidence “imminent threat” posed by Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, assassinated in a US drone strike on January 3; the news that first eleven, and then  thirty-four service members were injured in the retaliatory January 8 attacks on the Ain Al Asad air base in Anbar Province, Iraq, flatly contradicting early reports that there had been no casualties

A crucial task of journalism is plain memory. To record, and to explain, insofar as that is possible. But to explain you have to understand, which means you have to remember. And that is getting harder. Events in the internet era have borne down on us from all sides, so thick and fast that the default state of broadcast journalism is closer to panic than to reflection.

But each of us is part of an audience of millions, and can vote with our attention for the honest, careful preservation of history. I think we should reward that focus in every possible way, whenever we see it. 

“The coin of the realm is the size of the audience,” Donahue has often said. “If you don’t draw a crowd on television, you’ll soon be parking cars for a living.” The interconnectedness of the machine means that the audience can also exercise some control over it, just by paying attention, and remembering. 

Joe Scarborough’s January 3 report on the assassination of Suleimani blandly conveyed administration talking points, including the allegation, since discredited, that Suleimani had been planning attacks on US embassies; Scarborough included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tweet of a video of Iraqis “dancing in the street for freedom, thankful that General Suleimani is no more.” Brett McGurk, ex–US special envoy for countering ISIS, appeared with the ever hawkish Nicolle Wallace, former communications director to George W. Bush, to discuss “the threat represented by Iranian-backed militias.” McGurk, too, said that Suleimani had “clearly, about four months or so ago, made a decision to green-light attacks on us in Iraq.” 

But three days later it emerged that Iraqis had not, perhaps, been so keen on the Suleimani assassination after all, when their parliament voted unanimously to expel US troops. Nor did confirmation of the planned attacks from Tehran ever surface. Soon the tone of MSNBC’s coverage changed.

On January 8, Wallace declared herself astonished at Republican senator Mike Lee’s break with the White House on Iran, after a catastrophic briefing failed to justify the killing of Suleimani to the assembled congressmen. “The Republicans in the Senate are by and large zombies, walking along as Donald Trump obliterates things like truth, the rule of law, and respect for our institutions,” she said. 

But as it has for a long, long time on MSNBC, a plainly anti-war voice spoke out at 8pm. Chris Hayes, though he is a more dispassionate presence than either Donahue or Olbermann, went right off on the administration: “A war with Iran is madness, and it is strategically and morally a disaster in the making.”  How many viewers remember that MSNBC has broadcast a similar message every night in the eight o’clock hour, year after year, for seventeen years?

Editors note: CJR has appointed its own outside public editors for four vital news outlets — The New York TimesThe Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC — that currently lack any public ombudsman. You can reach them at [email protected] (Any messages will be treated as off-the-record unless otherwise agreed.)

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Maria Bustillos is the founding editor of Popula, an alternative news and culture magazine. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Guardian.

TOP IMAGE: Phil Donahue